SWFL schools prepare to address returning students’ mental health

Published: July 27, 2021 8:54 AM EDT
Updated: July 27, 2021 9:00 AM EDT

As your children prepare to go back to school, their mental health is a primary focus for school staff. The school boards for Lee and Collier counties are both discussing their plans to identify children in need and get them immediate help.

The districts want to focus on reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression because those are issues most commonly present in school-aged children. This is done using evidence-based practices.

Schools throughout Southwest Florida are set to vote on approval of the coming year’s school mental health allocation plan, which provides funding to school districts to help establish or expand school-based mental health care. This year’s plan would include almost $4 million in Lee County alone, all geared toward the health and wellness of students’ minds. Included in the plan is how the district will handle students referred for mental health screening, helping to coordinate mental health services with the student’s primary mental health care provider.

The past year forced staff and parents to take a closer look at addressing these issues.

“We focused on all students and trying to create a sense of scheduling and typical day procedures, help them feel safe at school,” said Lori Brooks, director of school counseling and mental health services for the School District of Lee County. “Even when, back in August of last year, we really had sometimes more question marks than we had any kind of answers to information.”

As of June, 20% of SDLC employees are trained and certified in youth mental health first aid. All schools in Florida have youth mental health first aid training, as part of the services offered through the Florida Department of Education. This teaches all school-based personnel to understand the signs and symptoms of the most common health challenges that young people may experience, including how to actually approach and talk with an individual students so that they may open up to that staff member.

This training is not just for teachers, but any school-based staff. School districts are currently entering year four of this training. Lee County’s staff say the District’s mental health resources have grown tremendously in those four years, for a district that used to have barely any allocated funding specific to mental health.

“We’re working really hard to really intervene before students would head down that road to crisis, try to help kids talk about what they’re feeling and identify where they are, kind of, in that continuum of mental health and wellness, so that we can help them early on,” Brooks said. “Because none of us want a child to be in that state of crisis.”

The mental health advisors with Lee County say the SDLC’s biggest need right now is staffing, which would mean more resources for students to take advantage of.